Twenty-first century Roma Nova military train with state of the art weaponry; their firepower and weapon handling are undoubted. But they also train on a ‘volunteer’ basis with a modern carbon steel version of the traditional Pompeii gladius, a short sword in use from at least AD 79 and not uncommon in the 4th century AD.
Named by modern historians after the Roman town of Pompeii, where four instances of the sword type were found – they must have been made before AD 79 when Pompeii was buried in volcanic ash – they’ve been tentatively dated to around 64 AD.
The Pompeii sword had parallel cutting edges and a triangular tip and is the shortest of the gladii and not to be confused with the spatha which was a longer, slashing weapon used initially by mounted troops. Over the years, the Pompeii got longer; later versions are referred to as semi-spathas. Some surviving examples of the Pompeii style sword have reinforced points with raised ridges, possibly designed to punch through leather and thin metal armour.
Pompeii gladius vital statistics
Blade length: 45-50 cm (18-20 inches). Sword length (including grip) 60-65 cm (24-26 in). Blade width: 5 cm (2.0 in). Sword weight: 700g (1.5lb)
Flavius Vegetius Renatus in De Re Militari Book I: The Selection and Training of New Levies, 390 A.D, writes:
“They were likewise taught not to cut but to thrust with their swords. […] A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armour. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal. Besides, in the attitude of striking, it is impossible to avoid exposing the right arm and side; but on the other hand, the body is covered while a thrust is given, and the adversary receives the point before he sees the sword. This was the method of fighting principally used by the Romans, and their reason for exercising recruits with arms of such a weight at first was, that when they came to carry the common ones so much lighter, the greater difference might enable them to act with greater security and alacrity in time of action.”
In Roma Nova, the concept of training harder than the fight you expect is still standard procedure.
“Still smarting, I went for a session in the gym. I found Flav there and persuaded him to do a turn in the arena.
‘Not if you’re in a bad temper.’
‘I’m perfectly under control, thank you.’
He was cautious as we circled and only made a few exploratory jabs for the first few minutes. Training with a sharp, double-edged, fifty-centimetre carbon steel blade tended to concentrate the mind as well as honing reaction skills.
In a formal session, if you were cut, you were cut; then chewed out for being careless. At this precise moment, I needed to release and ground my tension. I was the trickier fighter, but Flavius more strategic. After fifteen minutes, I was lying on the ground with a nicked arm and calf. And still jumbled nerves.”
“Flavius got it all underway, with pairs demonstrating sword skills. Not practised these days outside the professional games arena except by the military, training with a sharp, double-edged fifty centimetre carbon steel blade tended to concentrate the mind as well as honing reaction skills.
Not mandatory – we used state of the art weaponry as normal – but all members of the unit were encouraged to become proficient with a gladius, if only to get used to close physical combat with an opponent. If you got cut, you got cut, then chewed out for being careless.
Contrary to popular belief, the Roman short sword was more than fine for cutting and chopping motions as well as for thrusting. Not much had changed in shape since the Pompeii pattern used in the fourth century which had been spectacularly successful.”
“[Mercuria] twisted the combination lock on the grey steel cabinet and swung the door open. Inside were racks of short swords, fifty-centimetre blades modelled on the so-called Pompeii gladius pattern. While some late Roman armies used the longer spatha towards the end of the Western Empire, we’d kept the shorter gladius.
Now only the military or licensed gyms used them for training. But they were unrivalled for learning the sheer physicality of close-quarter combat. If you were careless and let your opponent cut you, then more fool you. This evening, I knew I was going to be that fool.”
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